The liberation of the soul
The Tomb of the Diver (480/70 BC) is the only evidence for large-scale Greek painting, other than on vases, prior to the fourth century BC. It is also unique in terms of the theme portrayed on it: a naked young man dives into the ocean, a visual metaphor for the transition from life to death.
While the Greeks traditionally had an extremely negative view of the afterlife, new ideas spread during the fifth century BC, based on the hope of some sort of survival after death. In the wake of this tradition, Plato would subsequently define death as the “liberation of the soul”, thus anticipating later religious beliefs.
The tomb was found 2km south of Paestum inside a small cemetery dating to the sixth-fifth centuries BC. The scene of the diver, who has given his name to the tomb, can be found on the inner side of the lid, directly facing the deceased. After the funeral, which was held in about 475 BC, the frescoes remained in darkness for almost two and a half millennia until their discovery in 1968.
The walls of the box tomb, made of travertine slabs, are decorated with scenes of a symposium (banquet).
The exceptional nature of the tomb lies in the metaphysical message it conveys through visual language. In the Greek cities of southern Italy, philosophers such as Pythagoras and Parmenides were tackling questions linked to metaphysics and life after death. There was a spread of beliefs inspired by pythagorism and orphism (in turn inspired by the myth of Orpheus returning from Hades thanks to music), shared only by those who had been “initiated” in the mysteries of this tradition. It has been suggested that even the person buried in the Tomb of the Diver may have been an “initiate”.